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Where to see white pelicans, spectacular birds wintering in Florida

Last updated on November 30th, 2020 at 11:34 am

Three white pelicans, Merritt Island, Florida/John Young photo

Graceful white pelicans over Merritt Island. Photo courtesy John Young

We see brown pelicans along South Florida beaches all the time, but white pelicans in Florida  are another story. They are two to three times larger than brown pelicans and they go to extraordinary efforts to get their winter in the sun. Thousands migrate to Florida from the mountains and plains of the U.S. northwest. By spring, like all snowbirds, they head north.

White pelicans have a wingspan of 9 feet, making them one of the largest birds in North America.  They are graceful in the air, often flying in a formation. They have almost comically large bills and pouches. 

All this means these are the sort of big, dramatic birds that even folks who don’t consider themselves birders will enjoy spotting.

While not common, you can find white pelicans on both the Gulf and the Atlantic Coast in winter if you know where to look.

White pelicans near Punta Gorda

White Pelicans in Merritt Island/ John Young Photo

White Pelicans in Merritt Island. Photo courtesy John Young

Around Punta Gorda, white pelicans from the Grand Tetons return each winter to an island that serves as a rookery and night-time roost in Charlotte Harbor. Called White Pelican Island, it’s a long, long paddle for kayakers and the birds are there primarily at the start and end of a day. So locals recommend looking for them in several parks and waterfront locations during the day.

One recommended vantage point is Placida,  an out-of-the-way location far from the Interstate and 25 miles from Punta Gorda — the sort of off-the-beaten-path spot that’s fun to discover.  It’s located at the start of the causeway to Boca Grande and Gasparilla Island. A good place to try is the boat dock at The Fishery restaurant, 13000 Fishery Rd., Placida, or the nearby fishing pier.

If you’re a kayaker, you can launch your kayak from Placida Park, 6499 Gasparilla Road, Placida, and if you’re lucky, spot some white pelicans. Once, when kayaking from here, I saw a formation of  some 75 white pelicans fly overhead in October. Several outfitters take trips into the adjacent Gasparilla Sound.

 

White pelicans and cormorants in feeding frenzy in Florida

White pelicans and cormorants in feeding frenzy in Florida. Photo courtesy John Young

How white pelicans feed

The truly lucky to get see the white pelicans in their unusual feeding technique. White pelicans do not use the plunge-dive technique of their brown cousins. Instead, they work together, beating their wings to herd fish into a tight circle. They have a symbiotic relationships with cormorants, who dive under this circle, both feeding and driving fish to the surface, where the pelicans can feast on them.

Wildlife photographer John Young (JRYoung1947 on Flickr.com) captured just such a feeding scene – a  wild splashing ruckus involving white and brown pelicans plus cormorants – in Merritt Island on the central Atlantic coast.

“This was at Kiwanis Island Park,” Young wrote. “I usually go there for osprey. I bumped into this spot a couple of years ago. It is not on the (Merritt Island National Wildlife) refuge but on a neat fish-heavy waterway.”

Birders who want to check it out can follow John’s directions: The address is 951 Kiwanis Island Park Road, Merritt Island. From  US 1, go east 3.2 miles on SR-520. Turn into the park complex at the light just east of Sykes Creek Parkway. The park is open 7 a.m.to 9 p.m.

(The photos on this page are courtesy of John Young. )

Other places to spot white pelicans:

  • My favorite experience with white pelicans is viewing them off the waterfront in the fishing village of Cortez, located between Bradenton and Anna Marie Island. About three dozen white pelicans move from oyster bar to derelict fishing shanty to various docks, all in a picturesque working harbor. If you get a delicious fresh fish lunch at my favorite spot in Cortez, the funky Star Fish Restaurant, you have a good chance of spotting white pelicans. 
  • In Fort Myers, Bunche Beach, 18201 John Morris Road, is a bird-watchers’ paradise. The beach is surrounded by sandbars and shallow water that attract white pelicans as well as a great variety of other birds. We’ve kayaked here and loved seeing the pelicans and everything else.
  • In South Florida, a flock of white pelicans hangs around Peaceful Waters Sanctuary in Wellington in winter.
  • In the Ten Thousand Islands off of Everglades City, we’ve kayaked off Chokoloskee, putting in at the fascinating Smallwood Store, and encountered flocks of white pelicans.
  • In Everglades National Park in the waters off Flamingo, you can spot white pelicans in Florida Bay and in Eco Pond across from the Flamingo campground. We kayaked from Flamingo into the Snake Bight waterway and saw 
  • Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center’s Alligator Creek Preserve 10941 Burnt Store Road, South Punta Gorda.
  • Circle B Bar Reserve, 4399 Winter Lake Road  Lakeland, Fl 33803;  entrance on south side of SR 540 (Winter Lake Road) between US 98 and Thornhill Road,  Lakeland    (Circle Bar B Reserve is a favorite among birders.)
  • J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, 1 Wildlife Drive, Sanibel Island.
  • Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. The Visitor Information Center is located four miles east of Titusville.
  • Seminole Rest in the Canaveral National Seashore.  A  flock of white pelicans spends the winter loafing on a shell bar directly behind the historic Goodrich’s Seafood Restaurant, 253 River Road, Oak Hill, which is just north of Seminole Rest, according to spacecoastbirding.com. Yelpers love Goodrich’s. This out-of-the-way waterfront seafood restaurant makes a neat stop during a pelican-sighting trip.
  • Pelican Island in the Indian River Lagoon was the nation’s first wildlife refuge. While it was preserved because it was a nesting area for brown pelicans, it is visited by wintering white pelicans too.
  • This list is not comprehensive. If you’ve spotted flocks of white pelicans in other locations, please add them via the comments. 

More about white pelicans

 

A note from the editor:

The information in this article was accurate when published but can change without notice. Please confirm details when planning your trip by following the links in this article.

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S Moore

Wednesday 2nd of December 2020

I saw quite a few white pelican’s on Big Lake Harris in Tavares, Florida. Our family owned lake front property for 73 years and this was my first sighting. I lived on the property for several years, 2015 -2019. I believe this sighting was in 2018. They were out in front enjoying their stop-over. I did not realize this was a rare sighting in Lake County. I have seen them on occasion in New Smyrna Beach. The first sighting there were a quite a few; the next day only a few stragglers. I did take photos. Property was sold in 2019.

Allan Hewitt

Tuesday 1st of December 2020

I've see hundreds of white pelicans at a time at T.M Goodwin WMA near the Stick Marsh in Indian River County. Not 100% guaranteed to see them every trip though. Only issue are the hours at T.M. Goodwin;

T. M. Goodwin Unit (Vehicle Access): Mondays and Thursdays, 9:00am-4:00pm Broadmoor Marsh Unit (Vehicle Access): Thursdays, 9:00am-4:00pm Walk-in access: Daily, 1 hour before sunrise to 1 hour after sunset (except on Saturdays and Tuesdays during waterfowl and snipe seasons)

James Stewart

Saturday 8th of February 2020

We live on a lakefront in Palmetto, and are blessed to be visited by a group of some 80 white pelicans every year....beautiful and fascinating birds!

Cissy Mynatt

Tuesday 28th of January 2020

1/28/20 - we just saw a flock flying (low) over the north end of Cape San Blas, FL. Didn’t even know they existed. Beautiful!

PJ Huntley

Thursday 23rd of January 2020

There are over 100 White Pelicans at Lake Morton. It is an interesting site to see them next to the Swans, Cranes, and other avian wildlife.

Bonnie Gross

Thursday 23rd of January 2020

Thanks! I had to Google Lake Morton. It's a lake within the town of Lakeland. But WOW the image that Google displayed on the map sure illustrates that there are white pelicans there. Take a look.

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